johnlink ranks SPEED (1994)
I was all set to come in here and talk about how I’ve watched most of the action movies which I had on heavy rotation as a kid. But as I thought about it, many of those movies haven’t made these pages. I haven’t hit up FACE-OFF or CON AIR or DESPERADO, etc. There are a bunch to get to. I find it fascinating to go back and look at a movie which you had a real affinity for, but which you haven’t seen in over a decade. Watching SPEED was a fun experience. I knew when all the jokes were coming, I knew when some action bit was about to hit, I could even remember the cadence of the dialogue as time went on. Yet, somehow, it was as if I was seeing it fresh while getting a new (and more filmicly sophisticated, I like to think) vantage point. I can’t believe it has been so long since I have seen this…
I watched SPEED (1994) on 2.16.13. It was, oh God, probably my twentieth viewing of the movie at least. But it was the first time I’ve seen it since the 20th century. Also, in the way of housekeeping, this article is going up a few days later than normal because it was originally written on assignment for The Bishop Review. Austin runs a great series of shared articles over there, and this was written for his Action Week.
Even if you have not seen SPEED, most people know what it is: Jack (Keanu Reeves) is trying to stop a madman from blowing up a bus. Once it hits 50 MPH the bomb is triggered. If it falls below 50 after that, it detonates.
Seeing this again, I realized how well they frame the bus action. The film starts with an exciting elevator escape and it ends with the pursuit of the villainous Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper). Each of those segments takes approximately a half an hour, so the bus stuff really only occurs from the 30 minute mark until the 90 minute mark. In fact, the bus is merely the second act of this film. If you’re looking for a good example of three act structure, look no further. The first act ends when the bomb gets triggered, and the second act ends when it detonates (which, I promise, isn’t a spoiler. It’s on the back of the DVD).
The success of this film is born from its playfulness and humor. SPEED does not take itself all that seriously (though, at times, Keanu does). There is plenty of humor, with both Jeff Daniels as Jack’s partner Harry (the same year he played a very different Harry in DUMB AND DUMBER) and Joe Morton as Jack’s boss Mac providing some key moments of legitimacy and entertainment. More than anything, this is the movie which legitamized Keanu as action hero, and which made Sandra Bullock a star. Bullock’s Annie is forced into the role of bus driver, and her blend of wit and likability provide a needed contrast to Keanu’s stoic action man.
To be sure, some of the acting here is not good. Keanu is fine when he is moving full-speed. At moments the film slows down and he needs to talk to someone calmly and forcefully. At 30 years old, he just isn’t very good at doing that as an actor yet. He had wrangled some of this awkward energy by the time he made MATRIX. The Wachowskis do a nice job of playing to his strengths in those movies, with lines like “I know kung-fu” being endearing because we know how ‘Keanu’ that is. But, in SPEED, he is just not up to the task of telling another guy that he “doesn’t care about your crime.’” That entire scene feels uncomfortably awkward. And he isn’t helped by the fact that half of the actors on the bus are fairly terrible in their own right (my least favorite is the guy who screams every line).
This movie, fortunately, does not rely on Keanu doing much heavy lifting. It has Morton and Daniels and Bullock for that. Add in a wonderfully eccentric villain in Hopper’s Payne, and you have the makings of a memorable movie. This is not a film, though, which rewards multiple viewings (I say that despite the fact that I probably watched this 20 plus times in high school). Directed by Jan de Bont, the tension is wonderfully built for a first viewing. The movie never slows down enough for us to realize how absurd some of it is.
For example: The bus jump scene. The bus literally pops up in the air as it hits the end of the highway. It gets sillier the more you see it. Another example, and more of the typical problem with the movie, comes late as Keanu tries to pry open subway doors to get on a moving train. It takes him until the last moment to get them open, and he slides in just as he is about to get crushed by a metal grate. Only, the shot from the interior of the train shows his head and shoulders come in first, and his lower body come in a couple seconds later. Jan de Bont and his editor John Wright were too concerned with the ‘Oh shit!’ moment to consider the continuity.
Does that make SPEED a bad film? Absolutely not. But that sort of thing happens so often that the viewer who already knows what is going to happen gets pulled away from the reality of the film over and over again. Consider how much less the audience would think “‘no way that bus is still going 50″ if the movie would merely stop showing the speedometer registering 51 or 52 MPH just before taking a sharp turn or plowing through a dozen cars.
But here I’ve gone and gotten all negative on SPEED, when the fact of the matter is that it is still a wonderful joyride of an action flick. The tension which is built is very real, even if the devices used to create it start to make themselves apparent the more you see the movie. But, there are some smart moments to be found too. In the opening elevator sequence, which for my taste is the best part of the film in terms of tension, Jack and Harry bounce around the building using their brains rather than their might. They figure out a complex solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. They whip out tools (a screwdriver and a flashlight) the way most cops wield guns. While Jack proves very capable of using weapons as well, he and Harry are thinkers first. The irony of Payne later telling Jack that “Harry was the brains of your particular operation” is that the comment feels more like a statement on Keanu rather than the character of Jack. Indeed, Jack was the one who thought of the solution to the elevator.
This is a movie which has maintained a place in the ranks of quality action flicks. I’m not sure I would call it a classic in the sense that it isn’t a top 20 contender for the genre, nor would I rush to show it to someone who hadn’t seen it. But the movie is undoubtedly fun. There is something about this movie which makes it slightly better than the sum of its parts.
FILM: 4; MOVIE: 9; ACTING: 5; WRITING: 7; BONUS: 1 (What does this mean?)
I love the music in this movie. Classic 90s film score. In fact, I am pretty sure that THE ROCK (which has one of my all time favorite themes) ripped off their main riff from SPEED.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5